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Money for nothing

Kirk Ferentz and University of Iowa president Bruce Harreld, December 27, 2019

This is a post about one striking example of the astounding levels of corruption, cronyism, and sheer incompetence generated by the multi-billion dollar annual business that is big time American college football.

My subject is University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz. Ferentz has been Iowa’s head coach for 23 seasons. Early in his career, he did very well, leading the team to three straight top ten finishes between 2002-2004. At the time, there were regular rumors that various NFL teams were interested in hiring him, although the extent to which these rumors were well-founded, as opposed to planted in the media by his agent, remains unknown.

Since then, Iowa has settled into the the somewhat better than mediocre but not actually impressive status of a second-tier Big 10 program. Over the past 17 seasons the team has finished completely unranked ten times, has finished ranked higher than 15th nationally just twice, and hasn’t won a single conference championship, let alone genuinely competed for a national championship.

In other words Iowa under Ferentz has for a long time now been about the fifth or sixth best program in the Big 10 — and there are only about eight or nine programs among the Big 10’s 14 teams that are even seriously trying to win, so this isn’t exactly an impressive resume. All this is somewhat disguised from superficial examination by the facts that Iowa plays in the conference’s much weaker Western division, and also schedules three or four out of conference baby seal games pretty much every year. So for example, this past season Iowa had an “impressive” 10-4 record, even though the team got completely destroyed by the three best teams it played, and really defeated only one halfway decent opponent all season (beating a PSU team that finished 7-6 and played most of the game against Iowa without a quarterback doesn’t count).

As for those rumors about NFL or other college programs trying to lure him away from Iowa City, they understandably dried up completely more than a decade ago. Given that Ferentz had $20 million in guaranteed money left on the four years remaining on his contract, and that he’s going to be 67 before the beginning of next season, the potential market for Ferentz’s coaching services outside of Iowa City is now, it’s fair to say, utterly non-existent.

On top of that, Ferentz had a nasty scandal break out a year ago:

Several former Black Iowa football players sent a letter to the university earlier this month demanding $20 million and that longtime Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, assistant coach Brian Ferentz and athletic director Gary Barta be fired over allegations of racial discrimination during their time with the program, according to The Des Moines Register’s Chad Leistikow.

The eight former players, per the report, sent the 21-page letter to the school on Oct. 5. They are being represented by a civil rights attorney in Tulsa, and have threatened a lawsuit against the school if their demands aren’t met by Monday.

Dozens of former Iowa players have spoken out in recent months about their experiences playing for Ferentz in Iowa City, many of whom said they felt they were treated unfairly and were unable to be themselves on Ferentz’s teams because they were Black.

Many complaints were directed toward strength coach Chris Doyle, too, who was put on administrative leave and later reached a separation agreement with the school. Ferentz admitted he had a “blind spot” in his program, and that an advisory committee would be formed to help improve the culture within the program. Reports, however, alleged that Ferentz was briefed on racial issues within his program more than a year before the complaints surfaced.

Eight former players signed on to the letter, including defensive back Maurice Flemming, receiver Andre Harris, running back Marcel Joly, receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, linebacker Aaron Mends, running back Jonathan Parker, linebacker Reggie Spearman and running back Akrum Wadley.

Among the demands for the three firings and $20 million in compensation, the players demanded the creation of a permanent Black male senior administrator within the athletic department, mandatory anti-racist training for staff members, a board of advisers with Black players and anti-racist professionals to oversee the program and tuition waivers for any Black athlete who didn’t graduate, according to The Des Moines Register.

On top of that, Ferentz’s program is riddled with grotesque nepotism of the most egregious kind, as his son Brian remains the team’s offensive coordinator, despite the fact that the Iowa offense has been absolutely terrible for the last five seasons.

In other words, this is somebody that no other football program would at this point consider hiring, who Iowa should be looking to get rid of for both performance-related and off the field issues, and who had an extremely unfortunate $20 million dollar guaranteed buyout that made this financially difficult, assuming the existence of a can opener minimally rational university administration.

So what did the galaxy brains in the University of Iowa administration just do? They decided to tear up Ferentz’s existing contract, and give him a new eight-year $56 million deal — that is, a 40% annual raise, plus four more seasons of employment beyond 2025. None of this even counts various very soft and therefore easily attainable performance incentives. $48 million of the new contract is fully guaranteed, meaning that Iowa is on the hook for it even Ferentz loses thirty games in a row, and doesn’t do anything that’s such a radical breach of his contract that he can be fired for cause (Abusing his Black players obviously doesn’t qualify).

How does this kind of thing happen? How does someone who was already getting paid as much every year as FIFTY of Iowa’s tenure-track professors, who had absolutely zero leverage in the form of alternative employment possibilities, who was obviously guilty of extreme program-harming nepotism, and arguably guilty of abusing a lot of his players for racist reasons, suddenly get a brand-new $56 million contract?

The answer of course is that big time college football is positively swimming in obscene pools of money, none of which can still be distributed to the players in the form of salaries, because the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, aka the Sacred Principles of Amateur Athletics.

Self-dealing university administrators have to do something with all that money, so guess what, they’ve decided that ever larger portions of it should go to them, without regard to even the most minimal utilitarian considerations, let alone the potential pangs generated by a shred of moral conscience.

I believe this is known formally as the efficient and just workings of The Invisible Hand of the Market.

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